China’s top-grossing film of all time is about mermaids and the evils of human development

The Mermaid
The Mermaid
Image: Photo: Sony Pictures
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China’s box office has been growing fast. Powered largely by domestic movies, the value of ticket sales in China is set to overtake the US’s, the world’s biggest market, by the end of the decade.

Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid may have pushed that date a bit nearer. The Hong Kong director’s latest comedy earned 2.7 billion yuan ($417 million) in its first two weeks at the box office, breaking a previous record. It is now the highest-earning film ever shown in China (link in Chinese).

The Mermaid tells the story of a rich property developer who buys the rights to some water, which he plans to illegally develop. The mermaid, played by newcomer Jelly Lin, then embarks on a plan to seduce the man and kill him, to save the water. But the two fall in love.

Despite being billed as a comedy, the movie highlights the evils humans do in pursuit of money, and particularly unchecked property development. “If the world doesn’t have a drop of clean water, or a single breath of clean oxygen left, what do you want to do the most?” the trailer asks.

The movie was almost perfectly poised to smash some records. Its release date of Feb. 8 was right before a week-long Lunar New Year holiday, meaning young people home to visit family had plenty of time to catch the film. Its romance element also drew in Valentine’s Day viewers. And it’s hard to understate the importance of having Stephen Chow direct the movie. Chow, a major celebrity in mainland China and Hong Kong, previously produced Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, among others.

Previous data from EntGroup suggested that China’s box office growth will continue strong:

The speed at which The Mermaid surpassed other movies, some of which have held records in China for months, is a great sign for the domestic film industry. The movie’s gross now, after 16 days in theaters, is $433 million and counting (link in Chinese), not far from the $500 million Deadpool has earned globally since its Feb. 12 release, according to Variety.

But while Deadpool was able to rely on a strong global audience, it is debatable whether the same is true for The Mermaid. Should China perfect making movies for its massive domestic audience, the next challenge will be to make exportable experiences too.

The Mermaid has already opened globally but in the US, where it opened on Friday (Feb. 19), it took just $1 million in the opening weekend.